Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The "Existential" Quest: Two-Lane Blacktop

Nearly everyone who has written about Monte Hellman's 1971 road-picture Two-Lane Blacktop has fallen back on the term "existential" as his central descriptor. Although that term has become somewhat of a critical catch-all for a diverse range of films - largely from the late '60s and '70s - which feature drifting protagonists and a general sense of aimlessness, it is, in the present case, not without its uses. Still, we must be cautious in its application, lest it obscure what Hellman is actually up to in his presentation of the film's three primary characters.

It's pointless to apply the term, for example, to the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), a pair of car enthusiasts who drive their custom-built Chevy across the country, challenging other car enthusiasts to race for money. Although, in Hellman's world, characters may not be defined by any sort of a priori essence, the director has already settled the question of the pair's identity before the start of the picture. As GTO (Warren Oates), the film's third major character, notes, the two only exist in so much as they race (and fix up and talk about) cars. What little dialogue they speak is devoted entirely to the intricacies of car culture. (As Oates delivers his assessment, Hellman cuts to a shot of Taylor and Wilson talking - their words inaudible, Taylor pantomimes the turning of a steering wheel). Even the Girl who accompanies them on their travels is a matter of relative indifference; she exists only as a means of providing the necessary relief of the men's sexual urges. The film's final scene finds the pair challenging yet another car to a race, but Hellman ends the picture as soon as the race has begun. For the Driver and the Mechanic, the result is not important; the process is all. In their limited way, they have solved the problem of existence.

It is, instead, GTO (defined, at least in terms of nomenclature, by the car he drives) who fills the role of the existential seeker. Where the identities of the Driver and the Mechanic are fixed but simple, GTO's is complex and constantly shifting. Like that pair, GTO drives across the country (against Hellman's and cinematographer Jack Deerson's lovely widescreen roadscapes) with seeming randomness, but, for him, the drive itself is not the point; he may suggest a variable set of destinations (New York, Washington, Florida), but it's clear he has some sort of goal in mind. One of his final gestures, a suggestion to the Girl that they head South and start a new life, is his clearest articulation of a desire for a domesticated end to his existential wanderings. As GTO puts it, in what amounts to a sort of definitive statement, "if I'm not grounded pretty soon, I'm gonna go into orbit."

As he makes his way across the country, picking up hitchhikers, he tries on an evolving set of identities. With each passenger a new audience, his identity becomes a blank slate, one he fills in with a shifting series of backstories and outlines of future plans. With his final hitchhiker, he appropriates the circumstances of the Driver and Mechanic, explaining that he had originally driven a custom-made Chevy (the car driven by that pair) before winning the GTO and spent his time crossing the country, challenging the local drivers. By identifying with the two racers, we can perhaps say that GTO is suggesting some sort of longing for their fixed notion of identity in place of the constant questing that he subjects himself to. Then again, it may be useless to read too much into his latest attempt at self-definition. It is, finally, just one more possible identity that GTO tests out, and there is nothing to suggest that it fits better than any of the others. In the end, he takes off in his car with no more certain destination than at the film's beginning. As the Driver and the Mechanic continue to look for challengers, GTO resumes his endless wanderings, questing after some obscurely-defined, but deeply-felt purpose. So, if one were inclined to apply the word "existential" to that character's explorations, he probably wouldn't be too far off the mark.

No comments: